August 3, 2023
“We need to keep pushing to ensure that people who’ve gotten ensnared in human trafficking or have been victims of human rights atrocities have access to justice. If it’s an American company, they ought to be able to sue in our own courts.”
The National Law Journal has launched a profile series of plaintiff bar leaders. Each Q&A takes a personal look at the attorney’s career and legacy as well as discusses industry trends.
In this edition, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll’s human rights practice chair Agnieszka Fryszman discusses limits to jurisdictional access in the U.S. in international human rights cases and the challenges of attorney work-life balance. She also discusses a case she recently settled before the D.C. Court of Appeals with Exxon Mobil on behalf of 11 Indonesian villagers who had suffered human rights abuses including killings, torture and kidnapping.
Could you talk about one recent case that was a milestone for your career and for your practice?
It’s the Exxon case which just resolved, but we filed it in 2001. I was a very young associate and had just had my kids, my children were infants. I had just started working as a litigator and the case ended up lasting 22 years—my kids’ entire lifespan! During the course of the case, I made partner, started this practice group and I became lead counsel.
It was an epic struggle with 11 Indonesian villagers who sued the world’s largest and most profitable corporation, Exxon Mobil. We stuck with it for over 20 years and eventually the case settled just before trial. It was a great result that I think everyone is very, very happy with.
Judge [Royce] Lamberth [at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia] wrote a summary judgment opinion that laid out all the human rights abuses, the history of what happened. So it’s part of the historical reckoning of the violence.
How challenging was the process of discovery and witness depositions in this case?
In the beginning it was super hard because you would have to travel there to get documents and to talk to clients. It’s hard to think of the time before cellphones, but in the beginning it was really difficult to communicate. It was arduous, you’d have to commit for weeks to a trip and go by foot to these villages.
But now, 20 years later, everybody has a cellphone, everyone has Zoom, everybody has WhatsApp. So it was much easier—we could have a conversation, we could talk right on their cellphones with the translator. Thanks to technology, it has gotten a lot easier to litigate international human rights cases.
And then the other interesting thing that happened: people were really afraid to come forward when the case was first filed. They were genuinely and reasonably afraid for their lives, afraid of retaliation and afraid of being killed. And as the time got further and further away from the atrocities and from the conflict, people became less scared and more willing to come forward and talk about what had happened.
Often, defendants want to delay and file stay motions, but the irony is that it can work against them.
What are your priorities as a practice leader and woman trailblazer in the law?
Thinking broadly to provide opportunities for younger lawyers and especially women lawyers and women lawyers with families—to create opportunities for other young lawyers both to practice in the field of human rights, to try to institutionalize the practice group and that other lawyers have the opportunity to participate in these cases.
And then help represent victims who need representation and to bring the resources of a very effective and topnotch plaintiffs firm to take on cases where victims really need top-notch legal representation but also to create opportunities for other young women lawyers.
I’m to this day surprised sometimes, when I’m in a room for a big meeting of lawyers that includes only one or two other women partners. I think there’s just a lot more work that needs to be done.